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Story by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tales


© 1999 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved


Every sailor's cruising life begins somewhere. Mine began in Coconut Grove one bright morning in 1974, with a breeze just fair enough for a single, sweeping tack down Biscayne Bay. I was longhaired, bearded, 20-something, practically penniless and perfectly content as I set off on my first single-handed voyage aboard my first liveaboard sailboat. She was no ordinary sailboat, either.

"Thumper" was a converted lifeboat, salvaged from an old Liberty ship being scrapped in the Chesapeake. Built in another era and for another purpose, she sported a stout wooden mast held aloft by cables, deadeyes and lanyards, with a gaff-rigged main and a sadly worn working jib. With no electrical system, her running lights were kerosene and her one massive bilge pump, manual.  She was mostly an open boat, but with an added-on plywood cuddy cabin forward, just big enough for a cozy couple to sleep. Original oak plank lifeboat benches ran around the inside of the hull and amidships squatted a husky Gray Marine gasoline engine, held together with Marine Tex and baling wire, that started by means of a heavy iron hand-crank - like an old Model T automobile.

Thump' was a salty old dog and the light of my life, though you might not have called her graceful; a tubby 24-footer, eight feet wide almost her entire length and double-ended only at the last possible moment. She had been built in 1943, of riveted steel plates. The steel was still in excellent condition, but she had an annoying habit of popping a rivet every once in a while so that a little fountain of seawater would come squirting up into her bilges until I dove overboard and plugged it from the outside. My "plug" was most often a flathead nail with a bit of string wrapped at the head to form a sort of gasket, the whole gooped with underwater epoxy putty. Once the epoxy set up, it made a serviceable, semi-permanent repair. Anyhow, the water was warm and I was half dolphin, so it wasn't a big deal to me at the time. I never guessed it would eventually be Thumper's undoing - and very nearly mine, as well. 


I made Key West in a series of daysails, each an adventure in itself. A novice captain, I was teaching myself to navigate along the way: DR, RDF, cross-bearings and chart plotting and, with the help of a borrowed book and a plastic sextant, celestial navigation. Although I left my keel print on more than one sandy shoal along the way, I remember it as one of the happiest little cruises of my life 

Key West in the early 1970's was much less flashy, much less developed, and much less gay than it is today. Shrimp and lobster boats filled the main harbor, lining the piers three and four deep. Their scroungy, rubber-booted crews roamed the streets and bars where pink tourists and painted boys now tread. It was still very much a seafaring town and I was able to anchor, unchallenged, just off the end of Simonton Street, my big navy anchor clinging precariously to the thin, current-swept sand at the edge of the channel. It was there, surveying the shoreline from Thumper's open cockpit, that I first spotted Norma.

Lithe, blonde, newly tanned and fresh from Wisconsin, Norma had somehow found her way to this end of the world and happened to be sitting on the seawall gazing out to sea at just that moment. Young, bold, newly arrived and bursting with manly good will, I did the natural thing. I dove overboard, swam ashore, and said hello. Within the hour, Norma visited Thumper and within twenty-four, she moved aboard.

So it was that on October 13, 1974, we set sail together for the Marquesas, a small atoll 20-odd miles to the west-northwest. We made a credible landfall (considering I had no chart for the waters beyond Key West) and spent a couple of days beach combing, diving for lobsters and getting to know each other better. Meanwhile, two other sailboats arrived in the roadstead. We met their crews on the beach, which inevitably led to cocktails aboard. They were on their way to the Dry Tortugas and, after studying their charts and talking it over, Norma and I decided to accept their invitation to tag along when they headed west the next day.

We had only provisioned for a long weekend, but there were sure to be fish a-plenty and I was pretty handy with a sling. Besides, we weren't going to stay out there very long - or so we thought. So, on a fine, clear morning we set off in tandem with the other two boats to make the 40-mile crossing.  

The Dry Tortugas are a cluster of low islands, sandy shoals and coral reefs about 60 nautical miles west of Key West, well out into the Gulf of Mexico and separated from Cuba by the entire breadth of the Gulf Stream waters. To get there we had to pass Rebecca Shoal, said to be a dangerous place in a norther. On this sunny day, however, the breeze was light and the sea gentle, and Rebecca Shoal slid by without a whitecap. We arrived at our destination some time after midnight. Our guides had been there before and led us in through the marked channel to an anchorage off Fort Jefferson.


During the next few days Norma and I explored the great fort, once a prison and now a National Park, and the lighthouse and Coast Guard outpost on nearby Loggerhead Key. We befriended a couple of the young Park Rangers and met a number of other sailors and fishermen that came and went in a variety of vessels. In order to stretch our meager provisions we fished and dove for conch, and we ate well until it seemed like time to start thinking about heading back to civilization.

But the day we planned to leave the Dry Tortugas, the wind veered to the northeast and commenced to blow pretty hard. A 35-footer set off for Key West that morning only to return by noon due to rough seas outside the shelter of the islands, and worse at Rebecca Shoal. By the end of the day, two other sailboats and several commercial lobster boats came in seeking shelter from the building wind and seas. None of us yet realized this norther would not only get stronger, but would last for a very, very long time, pinning us all down for the duration.

We were stuck on this remote island with no way off and few provisions. As the days passed and the weather deteriorated, I moved Thumper around to a small crescent beach on the south side of the fort, ran a long bow line to a palm tree ashore and a stern anchor to hold us off, and settled in. Every morning a handful of sailors met on the Park's dock and, sharing a bucket of baitfish caught with a throw-net, we fished until we had caught our breakfast, lunch and dinner. It never took very long; snapper and grouper schooled endlessly around the pilings. Then those of us with limited stove fuel would build a driftwood fire on the beach and cook our catch. It was all very romantic at first, but by the end of a week or so we were getting a little tired of fish three meals a day. Norma and I had almost nothing else left to eat other than the last of the rice and the occasional coconut. The wind continued to howl, from due north now, 25- and 35-knots with higher gusts. The seas were reported to be up to 25 feet at Rebecca Shoal. Nobody was going anywhere, least of all my little, open lifeboat.

Thumper didn't carry much fresh water and her assorted jugs and containers were now nearly empty. Of course, we had been bathing in seawater all along, but now we needed to replenish our drinking water and that meant asking the National Park Service for help.

The head National Park Ranger at Fort Jefferson at that time was a middle-aged, officious man, very much attached to his book of rules and regulations. He was reluctant at first to share the fort's vast reserves of water with civilians - tt wasn't standard operating procedure - but at last even he had to acknowledge the extraordinary circumstances. He declared this to be an emergency situation and allowed those of us in need to fill jugs from one of the cisterns. But he didn't like it, not one bit.

By that time a few more boats had straggled in from offshore, including some big shrimp boats, their crews bearing fresh tales of high winds and breaking seas. One morning a Coast Guard cutter arrived towing a battered and dismasted sailboat. Two days later, the 100-ft schooner, "Sea Star", attempted to sail to Key West, only to come back with her proverbial tail between her legs, unable to make headway against the tempest. Yet all this time the sky remained mostly clear.

October 24th, my birthday. Thumper's log reads, "A cornucopia! I received a pack of cigarettes from Captain Bob, a package of hot dogs from the schooner, "Sea Star", and some C-rations from Park rangers Larry, Teage, and Jim."

Many boats besides us were running out of supplies, especially food. The fort had a horde of emergency C-rations tucked away under lock and key, presumably for just such a time. The head ranger had not been willing to release them so far, but now, grudgingly, he was finally starting to dole out a few of the variety packs. The rations were a welcomed change after 10 days of eating nothing but fish.

Norma was a good sport throughout the ordeal. She helped me patch Thumper's sails and rigging, an ongoing chore in the best of conditions, and pitched in catching, cleaning and cooking the fish. Together, we spent many hours exploring the dark recesses of the great fort, swimming off the beach, or just reading in the shade of a palm tree. Looking back on it now, it seems our time cast away on the Dry Tortugas wasn't so bad.

As for Thumper, she was content to wait it out. She never popped a single rivet the whole time we sat there in the lee of the fort.

But everyone else wanted to get going, and even I was getting antsy. Twice we set out aboard Thumper for Key West, and twice turned back as soon as we encountered the full brunt of the heavy weather outside the protection of the islands.

Halloween inspired a full moon beach party, the shoreline coming to life with pirates, clowns, ghosts and other unlikely apparitions as the sailors, fishermen and even a couple of the Park rangers celebrated in makeshift costumes. We were all making the best of a dreary situation… all but one. The head ranger chose that evening to inform us in quite official tones that the National Park Service would like us all to leave as soon as possible and that they could not keep giving us C-rations indefinitely.

The festivities resumed when he left, but were again interrupted by the arrival of a Coast Guard helicopter, an eerie sight as it swept in and hovered against the backdrop of a crimson dusk yielding to the rising full moon. One of the crewmen on a lobster boat, the Bonnie II, had become seriously ill and had to be evacuated to a Key West hospital.

I was friendly with the rest of that crew and after some discussion, it was agreed that I would replace the lost crewmember. So the next day I went out with them to pull traps on the lee side of the islands. It was heavy work, but I was rewarded with a bag-full of their canned provisions and even some produce. That night Norma and I feasted aboard Thumper.

The next day it was too rough for the Bonnie II to venture out, but the day after we caught 550-lbs. of crawfish. My share of the catch was worth $40, a windfall to me at the time. My earnings were "on account", to be paid when the boat eventually returned to Key West and sold her catch.

That same day, several of the bigger boats departed and did not return. After a record-setting duration of 17 days, the norther was finally blowing itself out. More boats left.

A couple of days later, three weeks after we had arrived, Thumper finally found the seas settled enough to head for home. We had food (groceries and lobsters galore from my crew work aboard the Bonnie II), water from the fort's cistern, and 15-gallons of gasoline, provided with the most gratifying reluctance by the head ranger himself after I convinced him we would never be able to leave without it.

We got underway shortly after dawn, motor-sailing into a light headwind. It looked like an easy crossing, the seas at Rebecca Shoal having settled down completely. The trusty Gray Marine "thump-thump-thumped" us along at nearly four knots and Thumper's old steel plates vibrated with new life. Maybe they vibrated with a little too much new life. Two hours out, at 0915, the ship's log reads, "sprung a leak in port hull just forward of engine beam." Then, at 0945, "Taking on 25 gallons per hour. Went overboard and plugged hole with nail and epoxy." At 1045, the log reports, "Repair didn't hold. Trying it again with waxed string around nail head and more (epoxy) putty." And, "Slowed leak to about 6 g/p/h." 1220: "Water rising fast again in the bilge. Two more rivets popped, starboard amidships. Maybe three. Going overboard to plug." And so it went. Rivets popped and I dove overboard and plugged the holes while Norma kept an eye out for sharks.

Norma, bless her heart, seemed to take it all in stride. I did not. In truth, I was a little nervous, this being the first time in my life I had ever been out of sight of land while skippering my own boat with no other vessels around to make me feel secure. Thumper didn't even have a VHF radio, so calling for help was not an option. I realized then with a certainty that I have never forgotten that when you take a boat to sea, you're on your own.

I handled it. We made the Marquesas that evening, and Key West the next day. Later that week the Bonnie II came in and paid off her crew. By the time Thumper set sail again, east and north now towards my homeport, Coconut Grove, I had a well-stocked boat, fifty bucks in my pocket and a seasoned first mate by my side. (Yes, Norma stayed aboard for the last leg of the voyage. They don't breed wimps up there in Wisconsin!) Thumper's hull was peppered with epoxied nail-heads, but her spirit remained unscathed. 

For me, this marked the beginning of a lifetime of steadfast mates and sudden leaks, of noble boats and forgotten schedules; the beginning of a lifetime of cruising for better or for worse. Since then, I've owned and skippered some very fine yachts and logged many thousands of miles offshore, but I never loved a boat more, or learned my lessons better, than I did then.

A few years later, long after I'd sold Thumper, I learned that she had popped one rivet too many and sank. So here's to a good little ship and a valiant voyage…and to Norma, wherever you are. May your rivets never pop!

                                                    ~ End~

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